The Magazine

The Democrats' Tantrum

Oct 7, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 04 • By DAVID TELL, FOR THE EDITORS
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MR. DURBIN: As I return to Illinois, people tell me over and over again: Senator, when you go back, please go to the floor of the Senate and express our feelings that we do need a coalition of force, not just for the principle and value of it, but for the military significance of it . . .

MR. REID: Will the Senator yield for a question?

MR. DURBIN: Yes, I am happy to yield.

MR. REID: I ask my friend from Illinois, is it true, when you returned to Illinois, people were asking about things other than Iraq?

MR. DURBIN: Exactly true.

MR. REID: Are people concerned about the stumbling, staggering, faltering economy?

MR. DURBIN: I say to the Senator from Nevada, that is where I was headed next. This chart, which I have brought to the floor, talks about the lost private sector jobs in the last 50 years . . .

--Debate about "Iraq" on the Senate floor, September 20

FOR WEEKS on end already, while the Bush administration has been attempting to rally international support for a drive to depose the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein, congressional Democrats have been laboring to direct domestic attention away from this looming conflict and toward our "stumbling, staggering, faltering economy," instead. They have not been especially subtle about it; that little piece of low-rent vaudeville quoted above is perfectly typical of the project. Nor have Democrats been all that secretive about what motivates them. They say so themselves, almost daily, in the newspapers and on the talk shows: Having weighed Iraq as a potential political issue in the coming midterm elections and--most of them--having adjudged it a "loser," congressional Democrats are trying to change the subject.

But President Bush is not cooperating. He remains preoccupied, not unreasonably it seems to us, with the military and diplomatic requirements of a pending U.S. land invasion in the Persian Gulf. And for some reason, ordinary Americans, too, likely November swing voters very much included, are more inclined to observe the unfolding of a major war than they are to watch Dick Durbin and Harry Reid discuss long-term private-sector employment trends. In other words: The subject is not changing. Consequently, Democrats are frustrated. No, more than frustrated: They are hot. They feel themselves wronged. They are even beginning to suggest that this whole Iraq business has been timed for the convenience of Republican campaign strategists--that bombs will fall and people will die primarily to ensure that Denny Hastert stays speaker of the House.

"I have not raised those doubts, but many have," says the new, new, new, new Albert Gore, ex officio leader of his party, promptly seeing those doubts and raising them a hundred. "The president is publicly taunting Democrats with the political consequences of a 'no' vote" on the use of force against Iraq, Gore complains, "even as the Republican National Committee runs pre-packaged advertising based on the same theme." Could it be that Bush is acting in what he sincerely believes to be the national and global interest? No, that's not how the former vice president reads the White House: "From the outset," Gore concludes, "the administration has operated in a manner calculated to please the portion of its base that occupies the far right."

Majority leader Tom Daschle, in turn, has now put on his reddest face and huskiest voice for a "spontaneous" trip to the Senate well, where he has bitterly denounced both President Bush and Vice President Cheney for having "politicized" the war by impugning the "patriotism" of Democrats who resist or question its prospect. "Outrageous," pronounces Daschle, careful to choke on the word for maximum effect. The president "ought to apologize."

No, the president oughtn't.

In their particulars, the Daschle and Gore complaints merit only a moment's consideration and even quicker dismissal. Daschle's are a transparent contrivance. Early last week, stumping for a Republican challenger in New Jersey, the president did let pass his lips a rather eye-opening subordinate clause about how the incumbent Senate is "not interested in the security of the American people." Granted, the remark was coarse, undignified, excessive, what have you. But it was not about Iraq, not a bit of it; in fact, it was immediately followed by an explicit appeal to bipartisanship in the struggle against terrorism and terrorist regimes. Nor was Dick Cheney speaking of Iraq--the word appeared nowhere in his speech--when, at an earlier appearance in Kansas on behalf of Republican House candidate Adam Taff, the vice president innocuously predicted that Taff "will be a fine partner for us in the important work ahead."

Furthermore, Bush has never once "taunted" Democrats--or ventured any other sort of public speculation--over what might happen if they opposed him on Iraq-related legislation. Nor has the Republican National Committee ever run a single ad remotely like the ones Al Gore decries. True to form, Gore appears very deliberately to have made this stuff up. Much the way he has invented yet another group of "far right" bogeymen. Can it have escaped Gore's attention that the man who was not so long ago his own handpicked vice-presidential running mate, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, now supports the same Iraq policy Bush has purportedly "calculated" for exclusive appeal to the "far right"? Surely Gore has noticed, too, that what exists of a genuine "far right" in American politics--in league with the equally marginal "far left"--actually opposes the Bush administration's stated Iraq objectives.

Now, it is hardly news, and would otherwise hardly be worth mentioning, that a Democratic Senate majority leader has laid an entirely synthesized "outrage" at the feet of a Republican president. And certainly none of us will fall over dead to discover that Al Gore has told a lie. But there is something else and more important to say about the current controversy over war and politics. And oddly enough, though it would seem an obvious point, almost nobody (our friends at the New Republic are a notable and honorable exception) has so far thought or dared to say it out loud.

It happens to be true that President Bush has "politicized" the question of overthrowing Saddam: not by the underhanded means Messrs. Daschle and Gore allege, but merely by raising the subject to begin with. And it is perfectly appropriate that Bush has invited "political" debate about the issue directly in advance of a federal election, the decision to embark on a war being the gravest and most consequential one a democratic nation can ever make. And yes, of course, it would also be perfectly appropriate, and not at all "unpatriotic," for the Democratic party, were it convinced that Bush had misapprehended the threat posed by Saddam Hussein, responsibly and aggressively to dispute the president's analysis. Or, failing that, to oppose the war outright. This magazine, though we view continued Ba'ath party rule in Baghdad as an intolerable and irremediable danger, and therefore consider war inevitable, would welcome that debate. And we think American voters are entitled to hear it now--and formally participate, by their November ballots, in its outcome.

Here's the thing though: There is no such meaningful debate in the United States at present. And not because the Republican party has suppressed it, but because the Democratic party has feared and failed to mount it. Have a closer look at Al Gore's speech last week to the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco, which now serves--if not by virtue of its author's stature, then simply by default--as the "best" and most "systematic" Democratic argument "against" the Bush administration's proposed course of action in the Persian Gulf. It is clear from this document that Gore holds the president's policies in abject contempt. But it is not at all clear why that might be.

On the one hand, Gore is "deeply concerned" that a war with Iraq would stretch the Pentagon thin and thus "seriously damage our ability to win the war against terrorism" still underway. On the other hand, Gore thinks we are "perfectly capable of staying the course" against Osama bin Laden "while simultaneously taking those steps necessary to build an international coalition to join us in taking on Saddam Hussein in a timely fashion." Which might well entail a war, since Iraq "does pose a serious threat" that is "impossible to completely deter" and "will continue for as long as Saddam is in power."

On the other hand again, however, "the rule of law will quickly be replaced by the reign of fear" should President Bush claim a "uniquely American right to preemptively attack whomsoever he may deem represents a potential future threat." The United States must proceed multilaterally, through the United Nations, Gore insists; the president must make "every effort to obtain a fresh demand from the Security Council for prompt, unconditional compliance by Iraq within a definite period of time." Gore does not explain how this, the one "specific" policy recommendation contained in his speech, is the slightest bit inconsistent with what Bush is doing already. Nor does Gore explain why an American attack on Iraq must await the passage of new U.N. resolutions, given that he freely admits, almost in the same breath, that "existing resolutions from 1991 are sufficient from a legal standpoint" to justify unilateral military initiatives.

But enough. This is not a grown-up argument, either pro or contra. It is incoherence, a tantrum. And it is an embarrassment that no other leading Democrat has yet managed to do much better. The president of the United States says readiness is necessary because war may soon prove inescapable. "We have our doubts but we're not sure" is not an adequate answer--not from a political party that controls the upper house of Congress and so pretends to shared responsibility in the conduct of our national affairs. Yes, Virginia, war is a legitimate subject for full-scale "politicization." A Democratic party that ducks its obligation to join in such a politics is a party that deserves to suffer for it at the polls.

--David Tell, for the Editors